Losing One’s Head: A Frustrating Search for the ‘Truth’ about Decapitation

If you ever find yourself in a pub with me, chances are that at some point, the conversation will turn to death. Not just death, but the terrifying and horrible ways people have succumbed to it in the past.

I have often heard a story retold about a man who attended the execution of his friend during the French Revolution. Seconds after the guillotine fell, the man retrieved the severed head and asked it a series of questions in order to determine whether or not it was possible to retain consciousness after decapitation. Through a system of blinking, the victim allegedly communicated his message back to his friend. The ending to this story changes according to the whims of the narrator… or perhaps the number of drinks he or she has consumed by that time.

I wondered: was this the 18th-century equivalent to an urban legend? Or could there, in fact, be a degree of truth in this ghastly tale?

My investigation into this grisly subject took me down some strange but intriguing paths.

In 1791, the French National Assembly decreed that all those condemned to death should die by means of decapitation.  This was decided on upon the advice of Dr Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, a man who petitioned for this method of execution on the grounds that it was more humane than traditional methods of strangulation. Ironically, the good doctor’s name would soon become associated with the very thing he wished to abolish: the death penalty.

[Incidentally, should you ever feel compelled to make your own model of a guillotine, you can find the instructions here.]

As soon as the guillotine was put into use, debates broke out over how ‘humane’ decapitation really was. When Charlotte Corday’s head was sliced off with a guillotine in 1793, witnesses observed that she blushed after being slapped by the executioner. One spectator wrote:

The eyes seemed to retain speculation for a moment or two, and there was a look in the ghastly stare…which implied that the head was aware of its ignominious situation. [1]

Another wrote to Dr Guillotin asking: ‘Do you know that it is not at all certain when a head is severed from the body by the guillotine that the feelings, personality and ego are instantaneously abolished…?’ [2] Others soon took an interest in this question and set out to find an answer.

The first to reportedly do so was a Dr Séguret, who subjected a number of guillotined heads to a series of experiments during the French Revolution. In several instances, he exposed their eyes to the sun and observed that they ‘promptly closed, of their own accord, and with an aliveness that was both abrupt and startling’. He also pricked one of the severed head’s tongue with a lancet, noting that the tongue immediately retracted and  ‘the facial features grimaced as if in pain’. [3] Was this my urban legend?

Right century, wrong story.

The trail went cold, until I came across the story of Jean Baptiste Vincent Laborde nearly a hundred years later. [4] In 1884, the French authorities began supplying Laborde with the severed heads of condemned criminals. In a series of experiments, Laborde ‘bore holes in the skull and insert[ed] needles into the brain’. [5] He then ran an electrical current through the needles in an attempt to trigger a response from the nervous system. In one instance, a prisoner reportedly opened an eye, as if ‘he sought to figure out where he was and what sort of strange locality hell had turned out to be’. [6]

As interesting as Laborde and his twisted experiments were, this still wasn’t the story I had hoped to find.

Just then, I came across a newspaper clipping dated 4 July 1892 entitled (appropriately enough): ‘Being Decapitated: An Interesting Question that May Never be Answered’. This looked promising. I scoured the article for more details.

In it, a letter from the condemned murderer, Louis Anastay, is described. Prior to his death, he entreated his brother to attend his execution and solve a mystery which had been plaguing doctors for a century. He wrote:

The separation of my body and that which constitutes my thinking being cannot so soon be accomplished. I believe there is a survival of about an hour. Come, then, Leon, be present at my execution and insist that my head be given to you. Call me with your voice and my eyes will reply to you. [7]

Surely, this is the tale that had been recounted to me endless times by others! Yet, further follow-up led disappointingly to the realisation that Anastay’s brother never did attend the execution, as there is no mention of this in subsequent newspaper clippings from the period.

Now thinking that the tale was a conglomeration of several stories relating to decapitation and experimentation, I was about to give up the search. I had already reached the end of the 19th century. Experiments involving decapitation couldn’t possibly have gone into the 20th century, right?

Wrong.

That was when I stumbled across the name of Dr Gabriel Beaurieux. In 1905, he arranged to attend the execution of the murderer, Henri Languille. Shortly after the blade severed Languille’s head, Beaurieux noted a frightening observation:

[T]he eyelids and lips of the guillotined man worked in irregularly rhythmic contractions for about five or six seconds. [After several seconds], the spasmodic movements ceased…It was then that I called in a strong, sharp voice: “Languille!” I saw the eyelids slowly lift up, without any spasmodic contractions – I insist advisedly on this peculiarity – but with an even movement, quite distinct and normal, such as happens in everyday life, with people awakened or torn from their thoughts. [8]

Henri Languille

Fascinated, Beaurieux called out the victim’s name again, and again, Languille’s ‘eyelids lifted and undeniably living eyes fixed themselves on mine with perhaps even more penetration than the first time’. [9] On the third attempt, there was no response.

So there you have it. Next time you find yourself at a pub and the conversation turns to decapitation (as it often does when I am around), remember the name Henri Languille.

And make sure you tell the story correctly.

1. Frank H. Stauffer, The Queer, the Quaint, the Quizzical (1882; reprint, 1968), p. 204. Qtd from Christine Quigley, The Corpse: A History (2005), p. 147.
2. The letter was reprinted in Andre Soubiran, The Good Doctor Guillotin and His Strange Device, trans. Malcolm MacCraw (1964). Qtd from Mary Roach, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2003), p. 200.
3. Qtd from Daniel Gerould, Guillotine: Its Legend and Lore (1992), p. 54.
4. A more detailed and fascinating account can be found in Roach, Stiff, pp. 202-205. I’m indebted to Roach for bringing to light this story. There were several other doctors who experimented with severed heads which I will follow-up on in subsequent posts.
5. Ibid., p. 202.
6. Ibid., p. 204. Roach deals with this rather gruesome subject in a very humorous and light-hearted way that often leaves one laughing one minute and feeling guilty the next.
7. St John Daily Sun (4 July 1892), p. 6.
8. Qtd from Alister Kershaw, A History of the Guillotine (1958).
9. Ibid.

60 comments on “Losing One’s Head: A Frustrating Search for the ‘Truth’ about Decapitation

  1. […] Losing One’s Head: The Frustrating Search for the Truth about Decapitation (54,132 hits) […]

  2. […] related story is here. More on beheadings here. And on capital punishment […]

  3. […] was reading today about how long a human head lives after it has been removed by a guillotine. Unsurprisingly, modern-dispassionate study on this fascinating topic is sparse. Old accounts, of […]

  4. […] any spasmodic movements, the convict’s eyes focused on doctor’s face, as if Languille was an ordinary living and healthy person distracted from his […]

  5. Ј’ai pas terminé de lire toutefois je reviens dans la journée

  6. It certainly makes sense to assume that the brain (which many suppose to be the life force) will operate for seconds or even minutes after the head is removed from the rest of the body. I speak not as a doctor but as a writer. So I obviously know best!

  7. […] any catchy movements, a convict’s eyes focused on doctor’s face, as if Languille was an typical vital and healthy person dreaming from his […]

  8. Splendidе post : une fois deе plus

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  12. Robert Prickett says:

    Re: Losing One’s Head. Anaesthetic can be applied sufficient that a person’s heart can be removed & replaced without ending life. Therefore, by similar anesthasia, the painlessly humane removal of the head is entirely possible. Elimination of any grotesque appearance by decapitation can be accomplished by putting the person to sleep, immobilizing the body & head separately, gravity dropping the blade faster by the assistance of electromagnets, and putting a waterproof collar with vacuum suction around the neck to prevent blood splatter. The condemned should appear to remain sleeping uninterruped long after death, especially if a distraction such as a informative video is playing at the actual moment of execution. Viewing curtains can be closed when the body & head are removed, for placement in a 2 chambered coffin. The guillotine is an extremely simple, foolproof, & cheap device. Whatever moral controversy there may be about execution, technically there is no problem.

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  15. I just saw something about this on tv. It spoke the same things you wrote about.

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  18. RichieP says:

    Although the victim was looking at this issue from a different angle, namely the body’s ability to continue acting after beheading, the tale of the executed Jomsvikings fits into the question of survival after decapitation, and very early too (986 AD).

    ‘Then a seventh man was led out …. “I think of dying. Just cut me down quickly. Here I hold a knife in my hand. We have often talked, we Jómsvíkings, about whether a man knows anything when he is quickly beheaded. So let this be their proof of the matter. I shall hold up this knife if I know of anything; else it will drop.” Thorkel hewed, the head flew off, and the knife dropped..’

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  19. Jon Nixon says:

    Consciousness is related to perfusion of the brain with oxygen- rich blood. I performed hundreds of cardiac stress tests in my medical career, and it was a common- place occurence for patients being infused with adenosine to have short, temporary episodes of heart block. If the asystolic episode was longer than 3 seconds, out they went. Systolic blood pressure would be in the 60 range. (It was easy to arouse them by a quick shake or two). So with decapitation, we would have a situation where the brain perfusion pressure would drop to zero ( not just 60) after severance of the main arteries within a second or two. In comparison to my observations, the victim would probably be conscious on the trip down to the basket, but no longer…….

    • Wow – that is a fascinating analysis. Thanks for your input!

    • Jeremy says:

      This is just from personal experience, but as a fighter I have been choked unconscious a few times, and choked a few other people out as well. I also do a lot of referee work, so I see people get choked out a lot.

      When a choke is applied well it completely cuts off blood flow to the brain and you are almost instantly unconscious, feeling and remembering nothing. In fact, when you come back around, it takes a couple minutes to remember what happened. There is probably some blood still able to pump through that choke too.

      With blood flow completely severed, I wager Jon is correct that they are only aware of anything for a split second.

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  21. When I initially commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get four emails with the same comment.
    Is there any way you can remove me from that service?

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    • I will try to remove you from the notification list! So sorry for the bother.

    • G.Michael says:

      Sorry. I disagree. When the head is severed from the body, all Life ceases. Spinal cord governs all movements, sensations. emotions, etal.

      • Liutgard says:

        …Or not. People who’ve suffered spinal trauma- Quadreplegia, etc, even losing the ability to breath on their own, can still control eye movement. Movement, sensation, and emotions are not necessarily governed by the spinal cord. The spinal cord is only a relay line for what is going on in the brain.

        If it had not been so (and we know this- neurology studies these days are AMAZING) the medical community would have settled this question a long time ago.

      • Denis says:

        G.Michael’s assertion is based on thousands of experiments with severed heads, he speaks from personal experience….either that or he’s an opinionated twat. The whole point of this story genius is that nobody KNOWS.

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  27. […] Losing One’s Head: A Frustrating Search for the ‘Truth’ about Decapitation. <= Blink and you’ll miss it- so much for decapitation being humane. […]

  28. You can certainly see your skills within the paintings you write. The arena hopes for more passionate writers such as you who are not afraid to mention how they believe. Always follow your heart. “Until you’ve lost your reputation, you never realize what a burden it was.” by Margaret Mitchell.

  29. Many thanks for utilizing some time to compose “Losing
    One’s Head: A Frustrating Search for the ‘Truth’ about
    Decapitation The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice”. Thank you again ,Elvin

  30. […] at a festive party with: “So, did you know that a decapitated head may retain consciousness for 6 seconds after […]

  31. […] severed heads, but I came across this blog post in my internet travels, and thought it relevant. http://thechirurgeonsapprentice.com/2012/08/13/losing-ones-head-a-frustrating-search-for-the-truth-a…    The post follows variations of the myth about the head retaining consciousness after […]

  32. Hi there
    Just looking for typical 17th century war wounds and similar. Attempting to write a “drama documentary” drama about civil war times in Gloucestershire… long way to go. Somewhere I found that they say the executioner lifted up the head to demonstrate to the victim that sentence had been carried out. Somewhere also that the period of conciousness following beheading was about 10 seconds. Don’t know if that’s true and can’t remember where I found these gems. I am currently using the Welcome web site and library facilities for my studies and access to EEBO. Unfortunately the day job is time consuming but hope to get it finished when I retire, even if not published.

    “Badly Wounded at Taunton” I found in ‘Unhapy Civil War – experiences of ordinary people in Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire 1642-1646 by John Wroughton.

    I am most interested in the theology, the strife of the time and of course in the rise of the Royal Society later in the century. Blood transfusions from sheep to man – horrific, fascinating and surprising they didn’t manage to kill more.

    John

  33. […] trying to see how long one could keep a head alive once it was separated from the body.  Well The Chirurgeons Apprentice tracks the rumor down and finds the truth behind it.  It’s kind of […]

  34. Exsanguinus Maximus says:

    Why don’t we just ask the Saudi’s to carry out a few experiments for us. Public beheadings are common there and throughout the middle east. Maybe the Taliban could help us out too.

    It’s not like there are any bleeding heart, liberal douche bags in those countries to get in the way of Death Sciences.

  35. Gato says:

    If deep down our instinct is that kind of cruelty, its a reminder that we’re at the end of the day, we’re merely animals after all.

  36. Mark says:

    I used to work in a killing house, where we ‘processed’ the large native Australian bird the Emu that were farmed. I observed every time, that when the head was completely removed, it used to blink, look around and if you put your finger near it, the severed head would snap or try and bite your finger. It used to creep me out, but very interesting indeed.

  37. I remember reading in a book on the French Revolution that a head bounced from the platform down to the street where a man was watching, mounted on his horse. The head bounces against the man’s leg and its teeth fastened to the skirt of his coat, which upset the man greatly and he wheeled his startled horse about, jostling others in the crowd. I remember thinking at the time that was the sort of detail it’s hard to invent.

  38. […] which has been around for  a long time.  Wonderfully morbid medical historian Lindsey Fitzharris takes a look at whether there is any truth to this tale. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to […]

  39. […] On the consciousness of people who have just had their heads chopped off. […]

  40. […] Link to ‘Losing One’s Head’ (via @TheNeuroTimes) […]

  41. […] 0 Thread(s) It seems that decapitation isn't as quick as one might like. Losing One […]

  42. Filip Spagnoli says:

    There’s a related story here: http://wp.me/pd52p-dz4

  43. […] related story is here. More on beheadings here. And on capital punishment here. Share this […]

  44. […] Link to ‘Losing One’s Head’ (via @TheNeuroTimes) Share this:StumbleUponDiggRedditTwitter This entry was written by vaughanbell and posted on August 21, 2012 at 5:53 am and filed under Remembering. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL. « Animals conscious say leading neuroscientists […]

  45. […] Losing One s Head: A Frustrating Search for the Truth about Decapitation by Lindsey Fitzharris: If you ever find yourself in a pub with me, chances are that at some point, the conversation will turn to death. Not just death, but the terrifying and horrible ways people have succumbed to it in the past. I have often heard a story retold about a man who attended the execution of his friend during the French Revolution. Seconds after the guillotine fell, the man retrieved the severed head and asked it a series of questions in order to determine whether or not it was possible to retain consciousness after decapitation. Through a system of blinking, the victim allegedly communicated his message back to his friend. The ending to this story changes according to the whims of the narrator or perhaps the number of drinks he or she has consumed by that time. I wondered: was this the 18th-century equivalent to an urban legend? Or could there, in fact, be a degree of truth in this ghastly tale?…. […]

  46. […] Hunting down the truth behind a decapitation urban legend. […]

  47. Very interesting! Thanks for sharing your research!

  48. […] Losing One s Head: A Frustrating Search for the Truth about Decapitation by Lindsey Fitzharris: If you ever find yourself in a pub with me, chances are that at some point, the conversation will turn to death. Not just death, but the terrifying and horrible ways people have succumbed to it in the past. I have often heard a story retold about a man who attended the execution of his friend during the French Revolution. Seconds after the guillotine fell, the man retrieved the severed head and asked it a series of questions in order to determine whether or not it was possible to retain consciousness after decapitation. Through a system of blinking, the victim allegedly communicated his message back to his friend. The ending to this story changes according to the whims of the narrator or perhaps the number of drinks he or she has consumed by that time. I wondered: was this the 18th-century equivalent to an urban legend? Or could there, in fact, be a degree of truth in this ghastly tale?…. […]

  49. […] the Guardian you can find out what the golden ratio for a uterus is. There’s also a post on execution by decapitation, and to make sure you don’t lose your head, be sure to check out Whitwell’s Brain […]

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